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College Sports Transfer Rules Don’t Have to Be All or Nothing

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As an old-school college football fan and former coach, if I never hear the word “transfer portal” again, it won’t be a moment too soon. But the use of the transfer portal as the first resort for unhappy players is a sign of the times. We’ve seen the erosion of loyalty, commitment and the urge to compete rather than retreat.

Fans love the transfer portal when the transfers flow into their program and hate it when their player leaves for a rival team. And transferring has become easier than an old-time quickie divorce in Reno.

Until recently, controls and rules governed transfers so it would be a deliberate process involving input from a number of people. Certainly, there were examples where that “input” was often coercive restriction by coaches leveraging school-favoring NCAA rules.

Transfer rules limited players by requiring them to get a release from their current school before being allowed to talk with other programs. There were also restrictive rules to keep players from transferring within their own conference.

But for the NCAA, there is a compromise to be had here.

The NCAA should develop two varied agreements between schools and prospective student-athletes. High school seniors would sign one of two different letters of intent with the school of their choice.

  1. They could sign a one-year scholarship offer. The player gets the ability to transfer any time they want, but in return the school can choose not to renew the scholarship after that year. The lesson being if you want the freedom to move on, you give the school that same freedom. Freedom to transfer comes with some risk. 
  2. A four-year scholarship between the school and player. The player and his family get the insurance of having their college education guaranteed for four years, but in return the student-athlete agrees to more restrictive transfer regulations that would mirror what existed before. The school gives more, and so does the student-athlete.

For student-athletes the choice is yours but life is not a one-way street. You have to give something to get something.

Many in our generation of parents, however, have spent years telling our children just the opposite. We’ve sold them the myth of absolute freedom, of never-ending blue skies, often by shielding them from the consequences of their decisions. What that has meant in society is a column for another day.

This two-offer model, though, really benefits student-athletes. Right away they’ll see the truest intent and sincerity of schools recruiting them. A wise old coach once used to tell coaches and recruits, “Recruiting is a little like getting married. You shouldn’t tell too many lies because sooner or later you have to live with each other.”

A school that only offers them the one-year option should be eyed suspiciously, a potential partner being unwilling to commit long-term.

But college athletics in its current iteration exists as a product of our times. Student-athletes are watching the behavior of those in leadership positions in college sports constantly talking about money.

College athletes know the source of that money is their play in packed stadiums or arenas providing television content for networks and advertisers. Salaries of coaches and athletic administrators are generated by their competition.

Realistically, if Ohio State and Michigan football players walk out right before kickoff, will Gus Johnson and Fox Sports stick around to televise Ryan Day and Jim Harbaugh competing in games of cornhole? Given Harbaugh’s NFL career he is a tempting favorite, but video has surfaced of Day’s three-point high school hoops acumen, so bettors beware.

Yes, athletes generate big money, but to be fair schools do invest in their players.

In big-time football and basketball, players are getting scholarships, training, coaching, academic support, nutrition guidance, tutoring and relaxed admissions requirements. There is a tremendous value in the money, time and resources put into developing these players. 

No one talks about that very much because of how society and schools sell the narrowest scope of the college sports experience in recruiting. The emphasis is ‘Come to our school, play right away and go pro after three years (in football) or just one year (in basketball).’ And by the way just forget that your coach may not be here based on that coach’s performance, or on that coach’s whims chasing a bigger job or contract.

The emphasis has gone from selling the lifelong benefits of what the true college student-athlete experience can mean across the rest of their lives. Who is honestly telling student-athletes in recruiting that the journey may be tough, that they will have to compete and fight through setbacks for something that won’t come easily? And would most parents in this generation appreciate that honesty? 

We live in the age of impatience.

As such, none of us should be surprised given the emphasis in social media, society and the recruiting process combined with big money and low loyalty in college sports. It is a sign of the times, times that are of our own making.